The 21st Congressional District encompasses all of Kings County, a small portion of Tulare County and parts of Fresno and Kern counties as well. While candidates David Valadao, the incumbent, who is a Republican from Hanford, and Emilio Huerta, the challenger, who is a Democrat from Bakersfield, are members of opposing parties, they have mutual goals in mind for the district.
Neither man aspired to hold political office until he saw a need and felt he had to step up to the plate. Both Valadao and Huerta have stated that the primary issues facing their district, and the rest of the Central Valley, are that of water quality and quantity, immigration and migrant farm workers.
Incumbent David Valadao
The son of two immigrants from the Azores, David Valadao grew up along the Kings-Tulare County line. He saw, first hand, what it took to grow a dairy business and he and his two older brothers played a significant part in that.
“I grew up like every other farm kid in the Valley,” Valadao said. “I was driving a tractor before and after school, and feeding calves.”
The only outside activity he was able to indulge in during high school was FFA – he didn’t have time for sports or other afterschool activities. However, growing up in a “Portuguese household” the family did participate in events with that community, including local festivals.
“Still, to this day, I speak to my parents in Portuguese,” he said. “That helped me become trilingual – knowing Portuguese helped me learn Spanish.”
Valadao met his wife, Terra, during high school. There were married while in their early 20’s, a very busy time in his, and her, life, he said.
“We were building the dairy that I live on now, building my dad’s house and my house, and the dairy facility itself, and getting married at the same time,” he said. “It made for a really interesting time in our lives.”
The couple has three children, the oldest of whom is 14.
In his mid-twenties, Valadao started getting involved in other aspects of the dairy business–working with Land ‘O Lakes as the regional leadership council chairman, serving on the California Milk Advisory board and with the Western States Dairy Association. He ended up on the California dairy delegation, and traveled back and forth to Washington.
“Before I ran for office, I had already met folks,” he said. “I met President Obama before he was president, or anybody even really knew who he was. I had met a few times with Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy. That was basically how I ended up in politics.
“It wasn’t something I had dreamed of doing, or grew up with a goal of–it always frustrated me to go to Washington and talk with folks and they’d ask ‘what is that term?’ [Meaning they didn’t understand the language of agriculture.] All they have ever done in their lives is run for office.”
Shy Guy Runs for Office
“I am a really shy person. I am not one who likes public speaking and I am not one who runs into coffee shops, and runs around and shakes everyone’s hands,” Valadao said. “When folks started talking to me about running for office, I thought, ‘these guys are crazy, they know nothing about me.’”
“These guys” were different people in the local ag community, as well as some in DC.
“I remember one day sitting in Congressman Adrian Smith’s (R-Nebraska) office in DC, and talking about ag policy, and I don’t think he remembers saying this to me, ‘You should really consider running for office, running for congress.’ It was just weird, and now I joke with Adrian all the time, and say that it’s his fault.”
When Valadao filed his paperwork to run for State Assembly, his wife was pregnant with their third child. The pressure was put on him to run when former Representative Danny Gilmore decided not to run for a second term. He won and served there for two years.
“It was interesting because the state legislature was only 80 people, and there were only 80 members of the assembly, so you really go to know each other. And, you are sitting on the floor for the whole process of the debate–because they debate each bill and vote on it, after they are done debating it,” he said. “It was tough, because you were in the minority [being a Republican], but it was a good experience because I felt like you really got to know people.
“Then you go to Washington and it is much bigger, and more spread out–just in the congressional there are three different office buildings, then you’ve got the capitol and you go across and you’ve got three senate buildings. So, you are spread out so far, you don’t get to know folks as well there.”
On to Washington
Valadao’s decision to run for congress was an easy one, he said. He felt more had to be done at the federal level than the state, and he felt he could be of better service there. Valadao won his first congressional election in November, 2011 in a seat that was traditionally held by a Democrat.
“I felt there were issues I understood better and issues that were more important to me, personally, that I could be more passionate about at the federal level, than I could at the state level,” he said.
The Number One issue being water – “water policy at the federal level is where changes have to happen,” he said.
Valadao noted that Congressman Devin Nunes (R-California) had been fighting the fight for a while.
“He had done a good job, but I felt we also needed my part of the Valley to have a strong voice for water and to be part of that fight as well,” he said.
Immigration is another issue Valadao said is important to the Valley, as well as farm policy in general.
“Things like the farm bill – regulatory issues that we face from all the different agencies – there’s a lot that comes from the state, but it’s because of standards put in place through, like the clean water act or the clean air act,” he said. “There are things at the federal level that play a very instrumental role in the regulations that we struggle with here in the Valley.”
Valadao cites getting two bills signed into law at the state level. One in dealing with mental care services and the ability for an in-home health care worker to be able to sign legal documents for the person they are caring for. The second was with regards to cutting state subsidy for ethanol production within the state.
As a congressman, Valadao serves on the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.
“Being on the Appropriations Committee, it’s a place where you don’t get a lot of personal bills with your name signed into law. But, you do get language put into the appropriation bill that will end up becoming law, because they are must-pass bills,” he said.
“At the federal level , the water fight, we haven’t gotten anything signed into law, but we’ve moved the ball forward a lot more than ever in the past. We’ve got water language in four or five bills sitting in the senate now. We’ve got them into appropriation bills, which has never been done before.
“We’ve actually gotten senate leadership to actually pay attention to what is going on here and Senator [Lisa] Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has actually been to the Valley a couple of times, is getting to know the issue and is very engaged in the issue. Our struggle is to get our [own] senators engaged in the issue.
“The water situation has gotten a lot worse–being in the right place at the right time certainly has something to do with it.”
Also at the federal level, Valadao said, “it wasn’t a bill that was signed under my name, but it was my language that got put into the farm bill and became law. It allows California to leave the California pricing system, and join the federal order to level the playing field for California farmers. California right now has the second lowest paying milk price in the nation. I think New Mexico is the worst, that’s the last I saw. And, California is the largest producing state of milk in the nation. Twenty percent of the nation’s milk comes from California.”
Valadao also cited assisting in the way grants are looked at for some California communities. An example, he said, is Corcoran, now being allowed to apply for a grant to build a police station.
A Third Term
Valadao said he feels he has more to get done and that is why he is running for a third term. He wants to deal with water issues more, as well as immigration policies.
“Water –especially with all the communities like Terra Bella and Porterville, Coalinga, Huron and Avenal – -all rely on water out of the Delta, and making sure that we have a stable water supply for those communities and obviously, the farmers are who everyone knows about: but there is a direct correlation,” he said. “Those communities actually get their water from surface water, they don’t have wells, they rely 100% on surface water.
“Immigration is one I would really like to see move forward as well. I would like to, obviously, see that we have a secure border. But, we also have to make sure we have a guest worker program for agriculture – there hasn’t been one in place since 1965.
“Especially when representing a district that has more than 400 different crops – from animal agriculture that is year-round to very, very seasonal crops–there is a very short window–the guest worker programs that we have today for agriculture and immigration, just isn’t there.
“Then when you get into visas, too, that’s a different category–you get into the medical field. The communities I represent are very much underserved, and getting the doctors and nurses to work in some of these rural communities is very difficult. When you look at the visa program as well, it’s something that is very important to make sure that we have the ability to fill those roles to help these underserved communities.”
Valadao is a graduate of Hanford High School. He attended COS, but when life got very busy with the dairy business, he had to drop out.
While being a congressman, his life and his family’s life has changed very little, he said.
“It’s just that I am gone four days a week,” he said. “Even before I ran for office, I was gone a lot. I would sleep in my bed at night, but I had a lot of very, very long days. My wife even jokes that she sees me more now than before I was a congressman.”
Valadao said he flies home every weekend, unless duty calls him elsewhere, like when he went to Iraq to spend Christmas with the troops.
His brothers, whom he is partners with in dairy operations, have really had to step up with the dairy, he said.
And they have had to hire some people to fill positions he generally takes care of there.
Once done in congress, Valadao will go back to being a dairyman, however, “As long as I feel I can add something to the conversation, and I still believe there is stuff I can be helpful with,” he would like to continue to serve.
“I love my part of the country, I love where I live, I love the community,” he said. “I feel like I fit in well with my community. Even other members of congress who have come to visit the area, riding around with me in the district, say ‘like that’s why you went–you’re one of them’. . . Knowing that when I go back, the people who I represent are people just like me–the same type of background–a lot of immigrants, whose parents came over and speak different languages, worked hard and are business owners now. It’s a great story, but it’s also a very common story in the Valley.”
With Regard to the 21st Congressional District
“I am in one of the toughest districts in the country–I am in a district that was drawn for a Democrat and I’m a Republican. So, my focus, every time, has to be on winning my race, and not worrying about other races [including the presidential race],” he said.
Valadao stopped short of saying the district was actually gerrymandered.
“If you look at the district, you can tell especially in Bakersfield,” he said. “The bipartisan commission was run by a Democrat. The Valley is pretty Republican. The district was drawn on purpose – I just happened to win it. It’s not something you can prove. The 2012 election, when I won this [district], it was with new boundaries.”